Achieving Agility

I recently spoke to a senior manager who wanted to know how “agile” his company was compared to other companies. When I asked what he’d gain from that information, he responded that then he’d know what practices the development teams needed to implement next. I’m not the only one receiving calls like this. Companies promising agility assessments are sprouting like dandelions.

How agile you are doesn’t matter. Whether you are 50 per cent agile, 90 per cent agile or agile through and through (whatever that means), doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that your company is satisfying its customers, stakeholders, and employees.

  • Customers

    Understanding your market and customers (and potential customers) is the first step in building products that will sell. You need to know enough about both to create a product road map that guides product investments and lays out which features to deliver when.

    If you aren’t sure what your customers think about your company’s current products, or don’t have a clear plan on how to create or evolve products, gather information. Investigating customer support requests, field studies and interviews can reveal how your customers currently use your product, which features need improvement, and give clues about unmet needs (which are candidates for future features and products).

  • Stakeholders

    Stakeholders include owners or shareholders, the board of directors, partners, suppliers, regulators and the communities in which you do business. Shareholders may focus on short-term profits; a board of directors or owner may have an interest in fiduciary responsibility and longevity of the company.

    If your company isn’t delivering the financial returns necessary to remain in business, it’s time to re-examine the factors that influence revenue. Most managers are familiar with traditional methods of assessing profitability. You may learn by looking at two other factors:

    • Value Creation, the process of turning a product idea into something you can sell
    • Missed Potential Profit, how much money and effort is dedicated to self-inflicted coordination overhead, rework, downtime, or support for difficult-to-use features.
  • Employees

    In order to build great products and carry out the work of the organization, you need to attract and retain people who have the desire and ability to do the work. Great people want meaningful work, fair compensation, and work systems that support them to do their best. Great people flee workplaces that rob them of motivation and pride in work, throw up barriers or treat them with distrust.

Agile methods can help satisfy all three of these groups.

Agile encourages close collaboration with a product owner or customer (whether that’s an internal customer proxy, product owner or an end-user of the software). This helps teams understand the customer and his context, so they can make better decisions about feature design. Short iterations and frequent demonstrations of working features keeps development close to customer needs and wants.